5 Habits to Add to Your Day to Prevent Cognitive Decline

While some decline in cognitive ability is considered a normal part of aging, there are a number of practices that help prevent age-related cognitive decline. Here we focus on five habits to incorporate into your daily routine to improve brain health and prevent cognitive decline.

Brain health and cognitive decline are two key concerns that face us as we get older. As we age, our brain shrinks which can lead to reduced cognition and cognitive function. The good news is: while we can't stop the aging process, we can make changes to promote a healthy lifestyle that may help delay the onset of cognitive symptoms and decrease the rate of cognitive decline seen with normal aging.

Here we gain a better understanding of the healthy habits we should include into our daily routines, with a focus on 5 key areas: nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, sleep and social connection.

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Getty Images / Willie B. Thomas

We also gain insight on how these habits can help us and why they work from Dr. Marat Reyzelman, M.D., Neurology and Clinical Neurophysiology Specialist at Wellstar Health System; Ebony Glover, Ph.D., Director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Kennesaw State University; and Kristen Frenzel, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology, Professor of Pedagogy and Professor for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative at Emory University.

1. Go Mediterranean

Research indicates that we could see significant reduction in cognitive decline if we take "food for thought" as a literal suggestion instead of a figurative expression.

Numerous studies show that we have to fuel our brains with nutrient-rich foods to prevent cognitive decline. Dr. Reyzelman, agrees and suggests that his patients incorporate healthy nutrition as part of their ongoing care. A follower of the Mediterranean diet for himself, Dr. Reyzelman recommends that his patients either follow the Mediterranean Diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet.

A review of research on the Mediterranean diet showed that study participants that had a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet had a 40 to 48% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than those who followed it less closely.

Additionally, both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are considered to be the most widely-researched for their heart-healthy attributes. Dr. Reyzelman explains that there is a link between heart health and brain health by explaining that one of the ways our diet can improve our brain is by improving the health of our cardiovascular system. "Patients who have heart disease are significantly more likely to develop stroke and dementia."

The takeaway: Take care of your heart health, and you'll take care of your brain health.

Also worth noting is that in addition to the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet, a hybrid of the two has been developed over the last few years. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND Diet, suggests promising results.

2. Work in a workout

In the same way that changes to our nutrition are helpful to both our heart health and our brain health, exercise has a similar impact. Dr. Glover shares that in study after study, researchers have found that older adults who live more physically active lives tend to have higher cognitive function than their counterparts who live a more sedentary lifestyle.

This is due to the increased blood flow and oxygen delivered to the brain during exercise, specifically to the hippocampus. The hippocampus region of the brain is the learning and memory center of the brain, and it influences spatial navigation, motor behavior and emotional behavior. Each of these are functions potentially impacted by age-related cognitive decline.

"Studies show that our hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory function, receives increased blood flow and oxygenation when we engage in regular physical exercise. This has been shown in studies to improve cognitive performance across all age groups," shares Dr. Reyzelman.

Dr. Frenzel notes that in one study, when participants completed moderate cardiovascular exercise (40 minutes of walking for fitness), the size of the hippocampus actually grew, regenerating over time and reversing age-related loss of hippocampal volume.

Dr. Reyzelman emphasizes this point: "Studies have shown that in adults who exercise regularly, there was a significantly reduced rate of brain tissue atrophy as well as signs of vascular tissue injury and silent stroke based on MRI imaging. There was also increased thickening of various parts of the brain cortex—areas vital for memory and thinking functions. In essence, exercise caused patients to maintain or even gain cells in important brain areas, whereas lack of exercise caused an increase in the rate of age-related brain cell loss."

The takeaway: Exercise is an essential element to preventing cognitive decline.

3. Breathe for a brain boost

Neurogenesis is the growth, development and maintenance of new brain cells. Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to grow new connections to make up for the deterioration of brain cells throughout our life. Oxygen is vital to both of these processes. Like exercise, regulated breathing, as part of a mindfulness or meditation practice, promotes an increased oxygen supply to the brain.

Most mindfulness and meditation practices teach deep, focused breathing with an emphasis on breathing in through the nose as a way to calm and bring focus. Until recently, we only knew that the technique worked, but we didn't really know why or how.

Dr. Reyzelman shares, "Studies have shown that even after a few weeks of meditation there are positive changes in the structure of the insulation layers of the brain (myelin). This helps to increase processing speed and connectivity between various centers of the brain."

Furthermore, scientists at Northwestern University found that when we inhale through our nose, we stimulate brain activity by stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus—areas where smells, emotions and memory are processed.

In addition to improving memory, regulated nostril breathing also helps reduce stress and levels of inflammation that can accelerate brain aging.

Dr. Frenzel, who works with monastic students visiting Emory University, says that, "We've known for millennia that regulated breathing is calming and allows us to focus. Now we have a better understanding of how." Researchers were able to pinpoint a set of neurons that link respiration to relaxation, attention and excitement; and by identifying them can further understand how breathing can help reduce stress.

To put this into practice, Dr. Reyzelman suggests adding meditation to your daily routine. "Meditation is a great habit to add—there are multiple health benefits from this, it doesn't take a lot of time from the day's routine, and anyone can learn this. Meditation can help to optimize brain functions such as memory and attention. It also helps to calm the mind, relieve anxiety and stress, improve sleep, and create a positive feeling of wellbeing."

And with podcasts and app readily available, everyone has access to free guided meditation resources.

If you prefer movement with your mindfulness, yoga is an excellent choice for a meditation in motion. The breathing techniques that are the foundation of yoga are controlled, focused nasal breathing that has been proven to improve memory and reduce stress. Evidence also suggests that practicing yoga can enhance brain function and structure and may help to reduce age-related declines in brain health by positively impacting the function of the hippocampus.

The takeaway: Breathe deeply, through the nose, to bring calm and improve cognition.

4. Reboot your brain with sleep

You've probably heard the saying, "If all else fails, unplug it." It typically works for your computer—and it works for humans as well.

Sleep is the human version of unplugging your computer. It's our way to shut-down to update. We need enough sleep—typically between 6-9 hours—and we need quality sleep for our brain to function properly.

There are three stages of sleep and all are important to maintaining a healthy brain. Light sleep is the brain's clearing house, sorting through information we need and making space to allow us to learn new information. Deep sleep is the brain's storage system, allowing us to recall information and REM sleep is where our brain casts off the emotional charge of events, allowing us to make sense of information we've received. Research suggests that we need each of these stages of sleep for proper cognition and memory formation.

Dr. Reyzelman emphasizes, "If you don't sleep well, all bets are off!" Poor sleep quality has been linked to a higher risk of dementia and a higher incidence of Alzheimer's Disease. In fact, one study suggests that approximately 15% of Alzheimer's disease may be attributed to sleep problems.

He also recommends that anyone who is having trouble sleeping, tends to stay sleepy during the day despite a perceived sufficient amount of hours asleep or who snores heavily, pauses or gasps for breath while sleeping to see their physician, as sleep conditions such as sleep apnea tend to be under diagnosed and can contribute to worsening cognitive performance.

We should also take a look at how these healthy habits work together. "Sleep is connected to nutrition and exercise and you can't have good sleep without healthy exercise and nutrition habits," says Dr. Reyzelman.

The takeaway: If you don't prioritize quality sleep, you increase our risk of cognitive decline.

5. Connect with friends and family

It sounds simple, but maintaining strong social connections is key to reducing cognitive decline. According to Stanford Medicine, people who maintained strong social connections were less likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety. They lived longer, had stronger immune systems and even had improved recovery time from disease.

In addition, research shows that social engagement—measured by factors like: living with others, playing games, going to the movies, traveling, taking classes, attending lectures or religious services, volunteering, working and visiting with friends and family—protects against cognitive decline by actually improving the gray matter in the brain.

Dr. Reyzelman stresses the importance of staying connected, "Continued socialization and building of relationships at any age is vital to brain health. Feelings of loneliness and isolation have been linked to depression and dementia, and social connections reduce the risk that mild cognitive impairment progresses to dementia."

The takeaway: Get out and go. Reach out and connect. Spend time with family and friends. It's more than fun; it's important to maintaining a healthy brain.

Bottom Line

The choices that we make each day matter.

If our goal is to be able to do the things we enjoy with the people we love for as long as we possibly can, we need to focus on the habits and routines that we implement into our daily lives

By making healthy food choices, getting exercise, meditating, getting quality sleep and spending time with friends—we reduce our risk of cognitive decline and improve our overall health and well-being.

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